WHAT has been called "the battle of the titans" - between
Hollywood studios and the three television networks - has created a
serious split within the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Now, the verbal sparring is in its final phase, and an FCC
decision is anticipated as early as next Tuesday.
The long and bitter controversy is over the Financial Interest
and Syndication Rules, established in 1970 to answer concerns about
the crushing powers television networks had at the time, and their
sometimes arbitrary treatment of independent producers.
The rules - generally referred to as Fin-Syn - prevent the
networks from owning even a partial interest in the shows which they
commission from producers. Networks cannot syndicate shows
domestically (though they are free to do so abroad) and they are
strictly limited in the number of prime time shows they can produce
on their own.
All this might be shrugged off as no more than an intra-industry
tiff, were it not that the syndication business is worth $3 billion
domestically plus $2 billion more internationally a year. The
networks are arguing that considering their losses over the past
year of both audiences and advertisers to cable, video sales, and
the recession, the outcome of the Fin-Syn argument might well
determine their survival.
On the other side, giving the networks permission to handle
program reruns domestically would unquestionably have a devastating
financial impact on many companies in the syndication business.
The effect that lifting the Fin-Syn Rules - or partially lifting
them - would have on the average television viewer is difficult to
determine. At first glance, the changes seem unlikely to affect
program content or quality. But the changes would be felt if the
loosening of the rules drastically changes business conditions in
either the film or television industries.
Once before, in 1983, the FCC stood ready to make a decision on
Fin-Syn. Arguing that the rules were no longer necessary, the FCC
was prepared to rescind Fin-Syn, but the commission was overruled by
More recently, Alfred Sikes, the FCC chairman, backed up by the
FCC staff, publicly made it clear that, times and conditions having
changed, he favored rescinding of Fin-Syn.
Howls of protests came from the studios, who currently contribute
some 70 percent of all filmed network programming.
A few weeks ago, it became clear that the FCC, presumed to be in
favor of the networks, was actually split 3 to 2 in favor of
Hollywood and only a partial lifting of Fin-Syn.
The pro-studio majority on the FCC was interested in a proposal
by commissioner Andrew Barrett that would keep much of Fin-Syn